An invitation to join a pilgrimage

Felwine Sarr’s 'African Meditations' embraces spiritual traditions as a worldview rather than a worldview about the people who practice those traditions.

Dakar, 2019. Image credit Vincent Tremeau for the World Bank via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Felwine Sarr’s African Meditations is a disruptive re-education. The text is a journey that  reveals itself only with patience. The set is a collection of meditations on the premises of community—whether we are individuals who come together or mutually arising expressions of the Universe. The utility of the text is in the unsettled space it occupies. Sarr explores the junctures at which we fill those spaces with the fear of, and anxiety about, the inevitable decay of life. What one is therefore invited to meditate on, along with Sarr, is how that decay reproduces life. We can either cling to the freeze frames of the past, anxiously anticipate the unknown future, or embrace the love arising all around us in the present. This terrifying choice is ours to make.

African Meditations reads as though it is alive and moving. Sarr is speaking in multiple registers at once—connecting spirituality, family, national politics, and the experience of individual growth that must always occur in relation to those we love. The text is an embrace of a generation searching for the tools with which to struggle for transformation. If we accept that  “in the beginning, Peace (freedom) was already something that had been bestowed to us” before “bandits and pirates perhaps then took hold of it,” then we might be able to cut  through the mystifying veil that has convinced us that “all freedom (peace) is a quest to regain it.” Our freedom is always already expressed at the scale of the Universe.

I read this as an opening to an alternative way of relating to one another, one in which our understanding of life on Earth drew from Kropotkin’s mutual aid as a factor of evolution wherein collective and complimentary struggle characterizes life on Earth rather than the misinterpretation of Darwin’s idea of struggle as endless competition.

Reading Sarr’s text is an invitation to yield one’s ego to that which makes life possible. Namely, the Big Bang, the event that opens the text and is revisited throughout. Sarr seems to wonder, in the wake of the Big Bang, how could we reduce that which has preceded us to anything but what it was, the expansion of the Universe. Sarr encourages the reader to ask of the world in which they find themselves, what is all of this but an expression of a grander cosmic oneness, which we remain linked to even if we neglect to cultivate our relationship to it.

This text invites us on a pilgrimage, after which one accepts that “this life has been granted to us,” and therefore cannot help but ask, “when did we lose it only to earn it back each day?”  Through Sarr, the idea of the cost of living reveals itself as an affront to life. Yet, as one struggles against the conditions that have given life a price, Sarr invites us to humility and to eschew seductively simple binaries as we might “traverse evil without falling for the notion that one is the incarnation of good.”

What is important is the first step on the path toward enlightenment. Choose whichever source of mysticism aligns with your path. For me, this begs the question of why qualify the interventions of this text as African meditations? That is to say, an ostensibly distinctive discourse would seem to play no role in a mystic journey into the source of everything. The features of race, nation, and ethnicity can’t survive global liberation. On the other side of radical transformation, there will be more ways to make sense of who we are and our relations to one another and the world. Even if you read the Africanness of the meditations through Sarr’s homecoming journey, he nevertheless leads us through the different scales of time one experiences upon arrival home. Sixteen years can seem to pass in an instant. What characterizes the return for Sarr seems to be the experience of time’s passing, the practice of habituating one’s body to movements, sounds, smells, and tastes that are both new and familiar. Through the chaos of rediscovering comfort it can be easy to lose sight of the love embodied in family members who are simply happy to see you again and not counting the years you have been gone. When Sarr tells us that his “long absence has meant nothing,” he is at peace with the fact that the children he has re-encountered as adults love him as they did when he left, even as he may struggle to re-learn the contours of daily life in this place. Home is an active project—the product of making and remaking—rather than a place to be rediscovered. Nostalgia can be toxic, as can the worship of ancestors.

I also read the Africanness of the meditations as an entry point into an embrace of the totality of life as we know it, the source of the Big Bang on earth. I hear Sarr asking, how capacious is your imagination when you say that Africa is the cradle of humanity? Or, how do you simultaneously experience and not fully understand that the earth’s tectonic plates are moving outward from this place you call Africa? Let us peel back the layers of mystification such that we can see the world (Africa) for what it is. Sarr invites the reader to embrace a new sense of the present wherein meditation leads one to recognize where one already is. Divide and rule has characterized your political domain, your relation to the planet, your interpersonal life, and your understanding of self.

The point of departure for Sarr’s text seems to be the embrace of spiritual traditions as a worldview rather than a worldview about the people who practice those traditions. The objective is therefore generative rather than critical. As you meditate alongside the text and allow what comes to mind to flow through you as if yielding to the current rather than obstructing it, remember what the text inspired for you.

If a better world is possible, let us meditate on its constituent parts—the institutions, communities, and relationships.

Further Reading

A crop that changed the world

The story about peanuts, and the people who grew it at the margins of an empire in 19th century West Africa, then the most abundant source of the world’s most important oilseed.